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16 October 2017

John Cage on Gluttony, Saints, Table Manners, Fasting, and Wild Edibles


Though I am honored to have been asked to speak to you, I am speechless with amazement. That a group of seemingly still-growing young men should have resolved to eat dinner only once a year fills me with awe. I like to think that matters spiritual and physical are so closely united that they cannot be split apart. But your example gives me pause.

Since we at the Center for Advanced Studies not only eat dinner 365 times a year, but indulge also in breakfast and lunch each day, we are so to say 1094 times as dependent on food as you are. This great difference in food consumption makes me suspect that you pick up a little food here and there in the course of a year, when no one is looking, -- or should I say when you yourselves are not singing? I have therefor telephoned Extension 235, spoken to Mrs. Jessie M. Dougherty and found out that this is indeed your only meal this year, that you have no Annual Luncheon, no Annual Breakfast, just this one Annual Dinner. That you dignify it by calling it a Banquet is understandable. And that you have eaten in quantity, unstintingly, is also understandable.

I have unlimited admiration for your Director, Richard K. Winslow. I asked him the other evening whether it was indeed true that food held little attraction for him. He paused and then said: it was, that is, food doesn’t.

Whether your discipline of not eating comes from him to you (indicating his extraordinary powers of direction) or whether your continence has reach from you to him (indicating the infectious quality of your devotion) is a question that defies my powers of thought.

Nevertheless, in keeping with the Wesleyan ideal of the Teacher-Scholar, and not wishing to teach you my bad gluttonish habits, I place before you what I can find in a spirit of scholarship off the top of my head in the way of historical instance that bears a small relationship to your wondrous accomplishment (though these instances may not be said to be commensurate).

I have heard tell of the Incas of Peru who chewed coca leaves in order to avoid eating and yet continue their life of toil carrying stones from hither to yon. It is not known whether or not they sang while working, and whether, if they did sing, they did so in a spirit of glee. I am certain though that, unlike the Incas, you are not addicted to dope or manual labor.

And were there not saints who sat on poles for months without eating? What were their names?

Sri Ramakrishna, an adjudicated 19th century incarnation of God, did indeed stand on one foot for several months in a state of Samadhi, that is to say, spiritual ecstasy. However, one of his disciples from day to day inserted food in his mouth. The mere mention of his name in the present context is out of place. However, he had a great interest in singing and when he was asked by one of his devotees who was a musician whether or not he, the devotee, should give up music and devote himself to the spiritual life, Sri Ramakrishna replied: By no means. Remain a musician. Music is a means of rapid transportation to life everlasting.

This subject of transportation reminds me of another saint, a Tibetan one, Mila Repa, who did not do what you do (that is, eat only one meal a year), but who, remarkably, ate only thistles. This had the effect of his transporting himself through the air in the form of a thistle. He was also able to appear in several different places at the same time. Perhaps your not eating will or has already given you the power of appearing nowhere. (I owe this supposition to N.O. Brown who had the kindness to listen to the first draft of this speech.)

Before leaving the subject of Mila Repa, let me say that he wrote songs, but I forget whether or not he sang them himself. He died as a matter of fact from eating. On three occasions he was offered poisoned food by one of the wives of another saint who was so jealous of Mila Repa’s spiritual position in Tibet that he desired his death. He promised this wife that if she succeeded in getting Mila Repa to eat the poisoned food, that he would make her No.1 among his concubines. Mind you, Mila Repa, through having eaten for years nothing but thistles, was clairvoyant. He knew perfectly well that the food was poisoned. But he also knew clairvoyantly that the lady really wanted him to eat it. Therefor, taking pity on her, the third time she offered it to him, he took it, ate it, but he himself appointed the hour of his death.

My colleague in the Center, Marsden Bates, tells me that there are two volumes of documentation on a forced fasting that took place during the Second World War in a camp of Conscientious Objectors. It appears that the dreams of these men lost all suggestions of the erotic life and became completely devoted to such things as meat and potatoes. I cannot refrain from wondering what the nature of your dreams are, you of the Wesleyan Glee Club. Perhaps after singing all day, you pass a peaceful night undisturbed by dreams, secure in your knowledge of the inevitability of this annual supper for which you have spent an entire year singing.

Fully aware that as a Scholar I cut a poor figure, I have asked Reginald Arragon who spoke last fall at the Convocation in Honor of Scholarship to give me some story that would be appropriate for you to hear after your single dinner of this academic year. He communicated the following delicious text: 
“Picture to yourselves four scholars and scientists, an anthropologist of Russian ancestry, the host, a sociologist, the guest of honor, a psychologist, and a historian, all faculty colleagues, sitting down to a rich Russian midnight repast in honor of the approaching departure of the sociologist from the faculty and community, a separation to be begun by his withdrawal to a theosophical retreat on Orkas Island. For he was a Dutchman who was not only infected by theosophy but seriously so. Unhappily he was even then fasting to give him the spiritual state necessary for profiting from the retreat. The fast permitted him only water, even in the face of this spread of meats, cheeses and cakes, anchovies and caviar, though he confided to us that his wife, who was not present, could have taken orange juice. Such laxity had to be granted to the woman, who is the weaker vessel.
 “The psychologist, a gross, hearty, elephant of a man, not to be outdone in physical endurance or spiritual self-denial by a sociologist, then recalled that he had fasted once, though he had no intention of fasting now. Indeed, he remembered even that the fast was last summer, that it was to cut down his weight, that it went on for weeks, that he did not need even water, but got stronger every day. He was in a forest of the state of Washington and like Paul Bunyan he cut down trees daily. The sociologist’s interest and admiration increased minute by minute as the psychologist added detail after detail to the account of this triumphant fast. ‘But then,’ asked the theosophist, ‘why did you stop?’  Because it was near the 4th of July and the end of the strawberry season, and he succumbed to temptation with the thought that in two days the luscious, red, fresh fruit would be gone irretrievably for a year. So it was in the days before frozen foods, and so the great experiment was abandoned. 
 “Not however was that of the socio-theosophist as he sat in front of the Russian meal and watched the anthropologist, the psychologist, and the historian eat into the night.  He made only one minor concession, of no apparent importance, but one that should be a warning to all fasters to make no concessions (unless it be strawberries), to stay by water, and not venture even to watercress, and certainly not to do so in response to the host’s appeal to friendship and love. Would the guest of honor go without touching any of the repast prepared by the host’s wife especially for the guest? Would he not respond at least with a gesture of gratitude and affection? Would he not toy with a plate of watercress arranged by the hand of the absent hostess (for it was a stag party)? Surely there was no nourishment here, nothing to break the fast! Affection broke the spell, and the taste of a leaf led to that of another and to another, until in the midst of midnight conversation the whole plate (meant originally for all of us) was consumed by one guest of honor, who had eaten nothing for a week and was not really breaking his fast. But let it be a warning!  If you know the virtues of watercress, you need not be told what they do to an empty stomach; and, if you do not know, I advise you not to try it. At any rate, the morning found the sociological theosophist so ill and weak that he had to postpone two days his departure for the retreat. Even then he must barely have re-established his spiritual control of his rebellious physical man.”
 Mr. Arragon’s reference to orange juice reminds me of my mother who once went on an orange juice diet in order to effect a cure of a tumorous condition. When I informed her over the telephone that I had been appointed a Fellow in the Center for Advanced Studies, she said: Why are they always connecting you with the Dance? And then she added, What University did you say you’re going to be in? I said: Wesleyan; and she said, being a good Methodist, Do they know you’re a Zen Buddhist?

Well, in Zen, they say: In summer, perspire. Shiver in winter. I might say in the same spirit: When hungry, eat. However, since being here at Wesleyan I have apparently eaten and drunk excessively. I am now suffering from a gouty arthritic condition.

Consider me, please, irrelevant to your abstinent ways. It is abundantly evident that in an academic situation I am a bad influence. However, following the admonition, Give the Devil his due, I ask you to listen to two of my stories concerning food (they are part of my lecture, Indeterminacy: new aspect ofform in instrumental and electronic music): one is about the death of the Buddha and the other is about the time I myself nearly died.

Dorothy Norman invited me to dinner in New York. There was a lady there from Philadelphia who was an authority on Buddhist art. When she found out I was interested in mushrooms, she said, “Have you an explanation of the symbolism involved in the death of the Buddha by his eating a mushroom?” I explained that I’d never been interested in symbolism; that I preferred just taking things as themselves, not as standing for other things. But then a few days later while rambling in the woods I got to thinking.  I recalled the Indian concept of the relation of life and the seasons. Spring is Creation. Summer is Preservation. Fall is Destruction. Winter is Quiescence. Mushrooms grow most vigorously in the fall, the period of destruction, and the function of many of them is to bring about the final decay of rotting material. In fact, as I read somewhere, the world would be an impassible heap of old rubbish were it not for mushrooms and their capacity to get rid of it. So I wrote to the lady in Philadelphia. I said, “The function of mushrooms is to rid the world of old rubbish. The Buddha died a natural death.”

I will conclude this talk with my second story, for I do not wish to impose too much food for thought on us who have just now filled ourselves, perhaps excessively, though understandably, with actual food.

When I first moved to the country, David Tudor, M.C. Richards, the Weinribs, and I all lived in the same small farmhouse. In order to get some privacy I started taking walks in the woods. It was August. I began collecting the mushrooms, which were growing more or less everywhere. Then I bought some books and tried to find out which mushroom was which. Realizing I needed to get to know someone who knew something about mushrooms, I called the 4H Club in New City. I spoke to a secretary. She said they’d call me back. They never did.

The following spring, after reading about the edibility of skunk cabbage in Medsger’s book on wild plants, I gathered a mess of what I took to be skunk cabbage, gave some to my mother and father (who were visiting) to take home, cooked the rest in three waters with a pinch of soda as Medsger advises, and served it to six people, one of whom, I remember, was from the Museum of Modern Art. I ate more than the others did in an attempt to convey my enthusiasm over edible wild plants. After coffee, poker was proposed. I began winning heavily. M.C. Richards left the table. After a while she came back and whispered in my ear, “Do you feel all right?” I said, “No. I don’t. My throat is burning and I can hardly breathe.” I told the others to divide my winnings, that I was folding. I went outside and retched. Vomiting with diarrhea continued for about two hours. Before I lost my will, I told M.C. Richards to call Mother and Dad and tell them not to eat the skunk cabbage. I asked her how the others were. She said, “They’re not as bad off as you are.” Later, when friends lifted me off the ground to put a blanket under me, I just said, “Leave me alone.” Someone called Dr. Zukor. He prescribed milk and salt. I couldn’t take it. He said, “Get him here immediately.” They did. He pumped my stomach and gave adrenalin to keep my heart beating. Among other things, he said, “Fifteen minutes more and he would have been dead.”

I was removed to the Spring Valley hospital. There during the night I was kept supplied with adrenalin and I was thoroughly cleaned out. In the morning I felt like a million dollars. I rang the bell for the nurse to tell her I was ready to go. No one came. I read a notice on the wall that said that unless one left by noon he would be charged for an extra day. When I saw one of the nurses passing by I yelled something to the effect that she should get me out since I had no money for a second day. Shortly the room was filled with doctors and nurses and in no time at all I was hustled out.

I called up the 4H Club and told them what had happened. I emphasized my determination to go on with wild mushrooms. They said, “Call Mrs. Clark on South Mountain Drive.” She said, “I can’t help you. Call Mr. So-and-So.” I called him. He said, “I can’t help you, but call So-and-So who works in the A&P in Suffern. He knows someone in Ramsey who knows the mushrooms.” Eventually, I got the name and telephone number of Guy G. Nearing. When I called him, he said, “Come over any time you like. I’m almost always here, and I’ll name your mushrooms for you.”

I wrote a letter to Medsger telling him skunk cabbage was poisonous. He never replied. Some time later I read about the need to distinguish between skunk cabbage and the poisonous hellebore. They grow at the same time in the same places. Hellebore has pleated leaves. Skunk cabbage does not.

FINALLY, let me say that I have the same high opinion of your singing that I have of your eating. Therefor I wish all of you (or all of us, for I should like to be included) long, happy lives, during the course of which you may recover from any ill effects of this evening’s banquet and my after-dinner remarks.